Thursday, August 6, 2009

An Escape

*Retold with permission.

I think it’s really interesting to read letters from past conflicts, like those from the Civil War or the World War II. In some cases, I know that the most historically accurate accounts of a battle or a unit haven’t come from official documents or commanders’ notes, but from those personal letters. More than informative, though, I think they were well-written.

Soldiers from those generations spoke differently, and more eloquently than most people do now. Reading these old writings is like reading a poetic account of a war or a love story to a wife or girl back home. You feel like you know these people after reading their letters. You also get the impression they were all smart, great men. It’s different now, though.

For the most part, guys here don’t write many letters anymore. Part of it is the transition from letter mail to email, but even those aren’t written very much, either. What’s written isn’t written very well. The notes aren’t even letters, and they’re mostly full of vulgarity. I think the original purpose of writing letters has been forgotten.

I wrote home for two reasons, mostly. The first was to let everybody know I was alive and well over here and hopefully cut down on them worrying about me quite as much. With the news going 24/7 about things – usually fixating on the very worst stories they can find, people get the impression we’re in more danger than perhaps we really are. Whereas men in other wars told what was happening because otherwise nobody would know at all, now I’m fairly certain that people know too much. I downplay the news and just let them know I’m fine. Even when the news IS true, I still didn’t want them worrying.

Even though I’m telling people I’m fine out here, I’m really not telling them much about what’s going on. At least not with any detail. They’re never going to understand it very well, so why bother trying to explain it? I’ll probably just make them worry more than they were. So, I keep it short. “I’m fine out here, we’re doing stuff. How are you?”

And that’s the real reason I wrote home. I wanted to hear how THEY were doing. I used to email one friend back in the states and ask her how she was doing, but she told me she doesn’t like to write, so I basically gave it up. She wasn’t going to respond to me, so there wasn’t any point. In about eleven months, I’ve only gotten about four letters out here, from her or anybody else. Just about the only package I received was from another Soldier I know who was home on leave. He signed it from his daughter, but it’s really from him.

Phone calls haven’t been much different, either. I’d call her every now and then, but after a few sentences the conversation always stalled. She once commented that I don’t have much to say, which surprised me. I told her I don’t call home to talk about what I’m doing out here, I called home to get away from all of this. She didn’t understand.

“So what do you want me to talk about, then?”

I told her I just wanted to hear about her day; nothing complicated.

“But that’s boring,” she protested.

Exactly. It’s normal. I miss it.

People are often at a loss for words when they talk or write to us, which is probably why so few actually bother. I think they’re trying to be polite, since they think that talking about themselves is either selfish or boring, but that’s not the case. They’re keeping us informed about normal life and reality back home. In many ways, they’re giving us a small piece of home with their words. It’s an escape from here, which is one of the biggest things we crave.

I know that all the experts say that veterans need to talk about their problems and all that, but this doesn’t really apply out here. For as long as we’re out here, we protect people back home with limited information. The talking thing is for when we get back or something. It applies when we’re done with this and trying to collect our thoughts on it. Out here, it’s usually the last thing we want to talk about. We want to shield them from the dangers, assure them we’re okay, and then move on to how they’re doing. We don’t call to talk; we call to listen. Same with letters; we write to hear back, not to vent frustrations.

I don’t think it occurs to people how powerful their words are. I think they’re so caught up in how unnatural it is to be talking with somebody in a combat zone that they forget we called because we wanted to get away from it. To us, home is interesting. To those at home, the war is more interesting. But in terms of value and encouragement to us out here, home is vastly more important. It may be boring to those back home, but it’s the life we miss. Every letter about it, every conversation – they take us there for a moment. And someday soon, we hope to be there.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. First person, focused and right on target. Good work.

  2. I agree. You're outgrowing me as editor these days, which is good.
    I think I'm going to go write a letter now! Maybe I won't feel so bad about boring them with my silly drama of a normal life.